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Commentary: Climate Change & Energy Production

Posted By NAEP Admin, Tuesday, July 18, 2017

By: Neil Markee
Editor in Chief-Purchasing Link

The climate change debate seems to be shifting away from “What’s happening?”  toward “What’s next?”  Here in the U.S., at least,  I think it’s safe to say that most residents have heard that the temperature of the  atmosphere, ocean, and maybe even the surface of the globe, is slowly (in human lifespan terms) increasing,—and the effect on the planet’s habitability has been, and will continue to be, negative if present conditions persist. In general terms, we know what’s happening.  What to do about it, and when, is now the question. Consensus has not yet developed, other than the unspoken acknowledgement that we will continue to be dependent on electrical energy produced in central plants and brought to us via a power grid for the foreseeable future. How sure is that?  According to the July 7, 2017 Wall Street Journal’s front page article, “Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. is nearing a deal to buy one of the country’s biggest power- transmission companies.”  $17.5 Billion would change hands.

Last month, in this column, we considered when peak oil consumption might occur, as anticipated by representatives of major oil companies. Half a century or so seemed to define their long-term horizon.  Whenever the peak actually occurs, the next event will be industry transition. My dictionary suggests that “transition” means change.  We have learned to think not just any change, but orderly change.  That is, planned, orderly change toward a known or envisioned condition—not an unplanned, abrupt redirection with no agreed upon goal.  That alternative sounds like chaos.   By starting early and allowing a half century, Big Oil has built in time to understand and react to some of what they learn over the years.   They know that their industry and the world it serves will be a much different place with different needs and capabilities than today. What will your campus’s electrical power needs be in 2067? Nobody knows, but you might initiate a campus-wide, annual, electrical-energy review to avoid surprises between now and then. The industry estimate may be an indication of when they think the global transition will begin to show results.

What will the Big Oil transition look like? The Saudi government, one of the participants, has indicated that they foresee an increased emphasis on the use of crude oil as a source of petrochemical feedstock and increased domestic petro chemical production.  They want to sell manufactured products rather than crude oil by the tanker as a commodity. According to an article in the June 14, 2017 Wall Street Journal, Total SA of France, one of the world’s largest oil companies, plans to become one of the world’s largest suppliers of electricity. They see homeowners and just about every other user as potential customers. I think it is safe to assume major oil companies are all thinking about their transition and starting to plan or revise existing long-range plans.  Those involved in the climate-change discussion will be paying attention.

Given the annual power consumption of all of higher education, compared to the overall consumption in the U.S., I doubt our preference as to the source of power delivered by the grid would have much of an effect on decisions made at the national level.  However, institutions could, individually or collectively, opt to generate their own power and share it via the grid, just as some major commercial firms do. Generation might be a source of net income for some.  Most Institutions will probably continue to buy power off the grid and most individual users will not be thinking about the source of energy used to produce the power they access by flipping a switch, although the source could have a substantial effect on the environment and elsewhere.  Organizationally, the major concern will probably be the cost for whichever source of energy is selected. 

Whatever decisions are made could impact much more than our electrical energy costs.  If developed nations decide to swallow the likely added costs, and if those nations of the developing world with access to cheap coal opt not to, their goods and services might become much less expensive.   What would be the political reaction in your state? Is anyone on your campus planning your institution’s transition? Logic suggests that campus business-leaders remain mindful of the state of the transition within the energy sector and consider coordinating their efforts with other institutions.

An article in the June 21, 2017 issue of the New York Times by Eduardo Porter titled “Traditional Sources of Energy Have a Role in Renewable Future,” opens by asking, “Could the entire American Economy run on renewable energy alone? “ His answer is clearly, not soon.  Porter has briefly reviewed an article soon to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.  His New York Times article reviews an article by Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson et al., published in the same academy journal previously.  According to the Times article, “…a group of 21 prominent scholars, including physicists and engineers, climate scientists and sociologists, took a fine-comb to the Jacobson paper and dismantled its conclusions bit by bit.” 

The Times article quotes David Victor of the University of California, San Diego, a co-author of the new critique of Professor Jacobson’s work as saying,  “I had largely ignored the papers arguing that doing all with renewable was possible at negative costs because they struck me as obviously incorrect. But when policymakers started using the paper for scientific support, I thought, this paper is dangerous.” The Times article continued, “Professor Jacobson relied on invalid modeling tools, committed modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions the scholars wrote.”  Disagreement among professors is not uncommon but rarely can you read such a sharp rebuttal in the national media. The article does not question whether climate change is underway but it does suggest what to do about the situation is not settled.  I was glad to see even the limited diversity among the reviewing group, as I have long believed that whichever options are selected, and when, will be largely political decisions. 

The panel supported “aggressive” investment in renewable energy sources. It went on to argue that other sources such as nuclear and natural gas should not be ignored, and noted that the technology to remove carbon from the air could play an important role. When will green sources of energy be able to replace the volume delivered by current suppliers?  Their answer seems to be not any time soon, given the scale of the undertaking. As I read this article and noted the disagreement on important issues among well respected scientists, I wondered if maybe there is no such thing as settled science

What will be our future sources of cleaner energy?  If we limit our focus to the next few decades, gas probably remains on the table as a major source.  Cleaner, affordable, and versatile, gas is likely to be a major source of energy for an extended transition, as we develop alternate and greener energy sources.  At the moment, there really isn’t any other viable, reliable, large-scale source on the horizon— or as far as most of us can see or divine. The real question is: gas and what else? With no massive, green source of energy in sight, more than likely we will continue to rely heavily on natural gas for decades, at least.

The street and the campus quad seem to be demanding a rapid shift to solar, wind, or any of the “free” green sources of energy, other than politically snake-bit nuclear.  None of these are currently capable of picking up load volume   Given current technology, 100 percent green will remain a fantasy well beyond the current horizon.  Cooler heads are likely to prevail in their acceptance of cleaner reliable sources as we transition away from most legacy fuels, and natural gas is likely to be the fuel that enables the transition

Coal use for power generation is in decline in the west and no longer plays a major role in transportation globally. I recently read of a clean-coal research effort that had been cancelled due to lack of progress.  I wonder if we have given up a bit early on developing clean coal because gas is so cheap.  Could genuinely clean coal be a viable source of energy at some point in some countries with an abundant source of cheap coal?  Abandoning huge, known, readily available energy reserves by defunding research because we have not yet been able to develop ways to use coal without harming the environment, and at a price that competes with gas, seems a bit hasty. Studying the science involved doesn’t add to the carbon problem.  Perhaps a modest research program would be money well spent.  Or is it good riddance?

What’s happening on your campus?

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